Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Laid off at 51, picked up at 53: Eager to be a full-time journalist again

First off, I should apologize for writing so much. But I've been carving today's tome since yesterday.

Late last week, part of me was dreading the Monday ahead. It had the potential to be a tough day.

It was, after all, the second day of yet another month — in fact, 19 in all since the start of one of the toughest personal challenges I have ever faced. The second of each month has come as an increasingly bitter milestone of sorts. Some have been harder than others; some have slipped past with little fanfare.

Still, a part of me was hopeful, even as I tried to quell my excitement. I had concluded the sixth and final interview of the hiring process for one company, and all I had heard from the interviewers so far had been very positive. Still, I had tried to suppress whatever excitement I was inclined to feel about this opportunity. The excitement, the eagerness to get back to work, turned all the more bitter with each rejection — whether by the potential employer or by me.

I had turned down a newspaper job in March, a bitter pill after a process that included an editing test and 10 interviews in the course of an afternoon. They had liked my experience as a longtime copy editor and appreciated my three years of work setting up Sun-Times Media’s websites. While I remain skeptical about the future of print media, I found this company in Chicago’s northwest suburbs a plus in many ways — 10 of those pluses were the 10 people who had interviewed me.

When the offer came, however, the pay was far lower — 40 percent less — than what I had earned before Sun-Times Media laid me off. After all these months, over the course of which I had blogged many times about the sea change technology was bringing to the newspaper industry, another bitter reality hit home that day. The industry’s travails have pushed back the pay scale for journalists, which never has been great, by perhaps 20 years or more.

Welcome to an unwelcome aspect of the new reality of modern journalism.

So even as I began this week driving to church Sunday morning, I pondered the past several weeks, which included six separate interviews and a writing test, all for one company. The process, I was confident, had gone well. Each person who interviewed me brought to the table a palpable excitement about the work, an enthusiasm I share for community journalism, and an eagerness to see how technology will continue to change and shape the way we as journalists do our jobs and communicate what we learn to our readers/users/viewers.

Still, I tried to suppress my excitement as I recalled some of the words I had read in April 2010, eight months before Sun-Times Media would let me go as just one more in a phenomenally long list of layoffs.

They were the opening words in a post Mimi Johnson had written two months earlier on her blog, Ruby Eyed Fox.com. The entire post encapsulated what many journalists felt or knew at some level but feared to face. Perhaps we were being the proverbial ostriches, hiding our heads in the sand with hopes the bad times would pass without touching us.

More likely, we were so mired in our work and worries that we thought if we just kept working hard enough and long enough and intently enough, no matter how untenable the conditions, we would be allowed to work one more day, one more week, another month. We were exhausted and corporately had been beaten to a stunned, bloody pulp — either we were unable to move or were trying futilely to find a way into another line of work at a time in our nation’s history when jobs were evaporating all over.

Newspaper cuts were occurring all over the nation as the industry struggled with the Great Recession and its own miscues, not to mention its lack of corporate foresight, in trying to adapt to the Internet. Thousands of journalists have been laid off since 2007. The layoffs are continuing. Newspapers continue to cut back in other ways, as well. One trend is to reduce publication schedules from seven days a week to six, to five, to four....

I fully expect that more newspapers will shutter their operations in the coming year.

Mimi is a blogger and writer who since has entered the world of novelists (Amazon.com recently released her e-book Gathering String — I’m engrossed in it now). She had written her blog post with heart-wrenching honesty about her husband’s decision to end his 38-year career in print journalism.

Mimi made a couple of points that struck particularly close to home:

I suspect that my wife, who questions whether I should stay in the profession, would nod her head in agreement with the second sentence — more specifically at the word bull-headed. Her simple honesty is among many of the traits which I so value in her.


Judging by the number of re-tweets of the link to this post on the day I first saw it in April 2010, there were many other journalists who also caught glimpses of themselves in Mimi’s words.

Strong-hearted. Bull-headed. Hopelessly romantic. And I love the work, to boot.

Perhaps those are some of the qualities that helped me cope during the past 19 months, as I sent out hundreds of cover letters and resumes for positions for which I felt qualified, both in and out of journalism. All the while, I prayed for work and hoped that it would be in journalism.

I give greater credit to God and my faith in Him, however, for coping through these long months. I seldom felt strong-hearted — just the opposite in fact during this transition in my life, although I’ve always had bull-headedness to spare.

But bits of encouragement have come over the course of the past year and a half — through friends and the church we attend, family, people from my past.

One of the first four or five people I called the night I was laid off was my former managing editor at The Courier-News. I had come to trust and respect Mike Bailey, starting with the process that led to my employment with him and extending over the years until he was laid off, about a year before I was.

Mike and his son, J.J., had partnered with Ruth and Steve Munson to start a website, BocaJump.com, which they launched about six months earlier. He offered to put me to work for up to 15 hours a week. He knew I’d need something to supplement unemployment, and he knew that I would provide him with quality journalism. I knew nothing but gratitude. I’ve long referred to Mike as my boss or former boss, but over the past year and a half, I’ve learned to think of him much more as a loyal friend. That’s a level of trust, respect and affection I’ve reserved for a select few over the years.

J.J., Ruth and Steve, who passed away last fall, likewise have been a source of joy and encouragement during this period of transition. Great people all the way around.

Writing this blog also has helped. Mimi’s blog had introduced me to her husband, Steve Buttry, who I came to know better as I read his blog, The Buttry Diary, which I’ve said before is a treasure trove representing the wisdom and experience of a man who has been in the profession more than 40 years. If you are a journalist, Steve’s blog is a must-have resource.

When I was laid off and started my own blog, Mimi saw me post a tweet about it and got Steve to take a look. He immediately posted in the comments section a series of links to posts in his blog about searching for work in digital media.

They both have been a great encouragement from afar ever since. Thanks to his blog, and the times he has reached out individually, I consider him a long-distance mentor, among the very best of the mentors I’ve had over the years.

This blog marked the start of something I had longed for without realizing it for some time — a return to writing. It, in turn, led me to learn new skills in terms of not only displaying and illustrating my work online, but also in learning how to promote it.

My first two weeks in late December 2010 garnered 869 page views. I had no way of knowing whether that was good or bad, but January 2011 brought only 453. I had started out using email and Twitter to get the word out. By February, I also was promoting it on my LinkedIn and new Facebook account — it’s called social media marketing, and it is a skill employers find desirable.

As of June 30, my blog has averaged nearly 1,462 page views a month since its inception. I’ve been told that’s pretty good for a blog that’s been around less than two years. When I started, I had no idea what was good or what even to expect. I’ve been immensely gratified just to see the numbers grow — and amazed at how this blog drew such a diverse audience representing so many nations from around the world. Googling some of them has improved my knowledge of geography, as well.

Also coming into play has been another of my part-time jobs — as a copy editor for some of Patch.com’s websites.

At one point, for several months last summer, I was working part-time for two Patch regions, which afforded me the equivalent of full-time work, in addition to that which I continued for BocaJump. There were cuts, however, and my hours were reduced but not wholly eliminated.

I’ve written about Patch before in this blog. I believe nearly every time I’ve mentioned it, I’ve referred to it as AOL’s courageous experiment to restore community journalism to communities that long ago had been abandoned by traditional print media.

It’s an exciting endeavor as well, although critics pan it for any number of reasons. But many of those critics haven’t offered any suggestions of their own. It’s always easy, I think, to criticize when you duck the responsibility of offering ideas for improvement.

The local and regional editors at Patch whom I have edited for have been a joy to work with — passionate, committed journalists eager to make this experiment a long-term reality.

Monday morning, I received an offer to work as a local editor for Patch in St. Charles, Ill. This morning, I accepted that offer and am beginning to move through the process of becoming an employee. Is it the perfect job? I have no idea, but the potential is immense. Patch is trying to do on a digital platform what few are trying — at least on such a grand scale, and I find that exciting, invigorating and very, very promising.

The interview process itself also was very encouraging — it is clear that Patch wants people who are passionate, committed and can play in a team environment. The care shown in this process has been exceptional.

So, barring any unforeseen complications — and I have nothing to fear from the background check — I will begin full-time work as a Patch local editor on July 16.

I am grateful to Patch for this opportunity, and to the cheerleaders I’ve had inside Patch — some I had worked with in the past, some I have edited for over the past year.

On Dec. 2, 2010, Sun-Times Media laid me off at 51. Since then, I’ve tried — sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing — to find joy in this change.

Monday, exactly 19 months later, Patch offered me a job. On Tuesday, at age 53, I accepted that offer. For that I thank God, I thank my friends, and I thank Patch. As with every job I’ve taken over the years, my intent is to do them proud.

I guess that’s because despite its ups and downs — journalism is, after all, a lousy business — there are some in the world who are called to be journalists. While I’ve had strong doubts about the future in recent months, I’ve never really doubted that calling, nor have I abandoned it even as I considered other career options.

I am, after all, bull-headed, perhaps strong-hearted as well. And part of me is a hopeless romantic when it comes to this profession. Of course, I also love the work.